Fallon Sellers and Georgia Greenberg sit at a table with a microphone as they record a podcast for their War and Pop Culture class.
Fallon Sellers ’20 (left) and Georgia Greenberg ’20 record a podcast for their War and Pop Culture class. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Eyes got a little wide when Jason Brozek told his Government 425: War & Pop Culture students they’d be researching, scripting, and recording a series of podcasts during fall term.

Fallon Sellers ’20 just smiled and nodded.

The Lawrence University senior, one of about 20 students in the class, knew the drill, having done a podcast in the spring in Brozek’s Environmental Justice class and already being deep into a podcast in Linnet Ramos’ fall term Psychopharmacology & Behavior class.

“I was able to be a little reassuring to everybody else,” Sellers said.

Welcome to the world of classroom podcasting.

As the popularity of podcasts has exploded over the past few years and the technology for recording and sharing podcasts has been streamlined, professors have increasingly turned to the format as an alternate means of research and study in their classes. Instead of an end-of-term paper being due, students are showcasing what they’ve learned by creating episodes of podcasts that will in many cases be accessible to anyone who wants to listen.

At Lawrence, the creation of podcasts as part of coursework is becoming more frequent. Brozek and Ramos are the latest, but they are far from alone. Marcia Bjornerud in geosciences, Brigid Vance in history, and Israel Del Toro in biology, among others, have all experimented with podcasting in their classes.

“First, the barrier to entry is low,” Jedidiah Rex, a designer on Lawrence’s Instructional Technology staff, said of the increase in podcast usage as a teaching strategy. “The tools necessary to create podcasts are easy to use. Second, podcasting makes use of writing skills but offers an opportunity for students to express creativity. There is a pedagogical value in students doing this work.”

Podcast numbers keep growing

According to a survey from Edison Research and Triton Digital, released earlier this year, the percentage of U.S. residents 12 and older who have listened to a podcast at least once surpassed 50% for the first time. That milestone marks a “watershed moment” for podcasting, Edison Senior Vice President Tom Webster wrote in a blog entry about the report.

“With over half of Americans 12+ saying that they have listened to a podcast, the medium has firmly crossed into the mainstream,” he wrote.

Brozek said he was intrigued to incorporate podcasts into his teaching in part because it gives his students a chance to create something that can be shared much wider. Topics his students are exploring in the areas of environmental justice and war and pop culture have potential audiences across the globe.

“They’re out there,” Brozek said of the eight episodes on environmental justice his students did in spring term. “When I go through my podcast app, they are just in my list of podcasts along with the other things I listen to. I like the idea that they’re available for a much wider community.”

In the process, the students are learning technical skills, writing strategies, script creation, interviewing techniques, and copyright laws, all valuable things no matter what career path they might be eyeing.

“I thought this was a way we could keep expanding the quiver of professional skills that we’re trying to help students learn,” Brozek said.

They’re also learning and discussing privacy topics — putting yourself in the public conversation, and what that means. That’s an issue professors using podcast technology need to navigate.

“One of the challenges of doing public-facing scholarship in classes is that students have reasonable privacy concerns, but we can always find a way to work within those boundaries,” Brozek said. (To that end, the release of some or all of the podcasts created in the War and Pop Culture class will be held until early in winter term to make sure all participants are comfortable with the process).

While most of the students in the Brozek and Ramos classes were new to creating their own podcasts, most had long been consumers of the format.

“Podcasts are ubiquitous, consumed by this generation, and it’s a genre that they largely already understand,” said Andrew McSorely, a reference and digital librarian in Lawrence’s Seeley G. Mudd Library. “It’s not a huge leap to apply it to the classroom, and, generally speaking, it’s as easy to set up and get students to engage with as a blog. Because of that, it’s hard to say how many classrooms are utilizing podcast assignments, but there’s no question that more instructors have asked about this technology in the library the past few years.”

From left: Fallon Sellers ’20, Georgia Greenberg ’20, and Basil Eastman-Kiesow ’20 record a podcast for their War and Pop Culture class taught by government professor Jason Brozek.

Finding an audience

The appeal comes as podcasts have transitioned from the domain of sports and pop culture to something that can find niche audiences in almost any sector.

“Where once it was distinctly for entertainment purposes, it now can hold scholarship and be taken seriously,” McSorely said. “For content creators in the academy, this serves as a way to engage with new audiences, and for undergraduates, it’s a means of expression that can seem more natural than a traditional essay.”

In Ramos’ psychopharmacology course, the students, working in groups of three to five, are recording video podcasts where they explain, critique, and discuss research articles on a specific drug. The episodes are being made available on the class’s new YouTube channel.

“Often times in classes, students read an article, create a PowerPoint presentation that describes it and mention a couple of ideas on how it can be improved,” Ramos said. “But rarely do I get to hear how students felt after reading the article or get to hear their opinions on why it matters, what they learned from it, how it can impact other sciences or society.”

In Brozek’s War & Pop Culture class, the students have dug into topics ranging from post-nuclear apocalypse to how terrorism is depicted in the media to the use of propaganda to influence audiences during wartime. Doing that in a podcast allows not only for substantial research but also thorough discussion.

“Part of what they’re required to do in the podcast is bring in academic scholarship,” Brozek said as the fall term course got rolling. “This new course is designed around thinking about the way political science scholars write about and think about issues related to war, like terrorism, extraordinary, exceptional circumstances, torture, things like that. Think about the way political science crafts narratives and asks and answers questions and the way pop culture crafts those narratives — where they may have some overlap, where there are differences, what those differences mean, how concerned we ought to be about the differences.

“If (pop culture) is where most people are getting their perspective on terrorism, what does it look like and how consistent is it with the political science literature? So, those are the kind of questions we’re asking in this course.”

For the students, that kind of scholarship isn’t out of the ordinary. Academic work is almost always question-driven. But channeling that work through a podcast takes it in a different direction. That is where excitement meets anxiety, Sellers said.

“Most of the anxiety comes with just learning the technical stuff,” she said. “A podcast is essentially just a conversation. You’re talking through something with your peers. That’s pretty natural to do. I don’t think that’s the hard part. The daunting part was I didn’t have any experience with the computer-related things, the audio techniques, and learning how to use Audacity and how to navigate that.”

Learning those technical skills and related communication skills will pay off later as students enter the job market with a wider breadth of knowledge and know-how. For Sellers, a government major, that’s no small thing.

“Media is so pertinent in our society, and I think it’s so important that higher education is also moving along with that, and we’re learning how to adapt,” she said. “Being able to go into a job and say, ‘Hey, I’m able to produce a podcast, I know how to use these techniques,’ I think people are generally pretty excited about that.

“By the end of my Lawrence career, I will have done podcasts on the dairy industry, on pedagogy and propaganda in pop culture and on opioids and how they impact social behavior,” Sellers said. “So, it’s very Lawrence, and very well-rounded.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu